What I saw covering the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis

When my executive editor at the Des Moines Register asked me to cover the local fallout of George Floyd’s death for the USA Today network, I had no idea that I’d be documenting a historic string of protests that would extend to all corners of our country and many places in the world. 

Even as I return now to my job as a courts reporter in Iowa, I feel lucky to have been in Minneapolis, despite a bout with pepper spray and the feelings of utter chaos.

There were things everyone saw – the Minneapolis Police Department Third Precinct go up in flames; journalists being arrested and assaulted; thousands of peaceful protesters who spent a week marching for, begging for and demanding deep systemic change. 

Then there were the things that flew under the radar. There was a bakery owner who stood outside to hand protesters bread. There were the journalists who ate one pizza for days at a time because there was nowhere to buy food in Minneapolis. (I couldn’t have been the only one, right?). There were the Twin City natives who spent days in the streets and nights in a jail cell. 

More than two weeks after the 46-year-old black man died, how the city – and police departments everywhere in black and brown neighborhoods – respond remains an unsettled question. 

Here’s what I saw after arriving and documented on Twitter for the week that I was there:

George Floyd Memorial in South Minneapolis outside of Cup Foods.

May 27

I started at Cup Foods, where Floyd died. The mood there was like many I witnessed during my five-plus days in Minneapolis: sad yet angry. Frustrated but peaceful. A young woman urged participants to register to vote.

Hours later, well before the Third Precinct would go up in flames, protests there turned from chanting to looting and violence. While dozens urged the crowd not to throw things, break into buildings or light fires, the fractured nature of the demonstrations became apparent. The looting of a liquor store was stopped after a group of men guarded its entrance. Then the AutoZone was set ablaze. I came to realize no matter how many people urged calm, it only took one or two to sew chaos. 

May 28 

The story became big enough to draw Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson to Minneapolis. While Jackson prepared to speak at a church, looting broke out in St. Paul so I left the gatherings and speeches to see what was happening. Some business owners took to the streets to defend their property; others watched helplessly. An ominous sentiment was conveyed everywhere I went that day. The worst is yet to come. 

I left St. Paul after speaking with residents saddened by the stealing as law enforcement watched nearby. Others felt the looting was cathartic for many people struggling because of the pandemic.

Hundreds gathered in downtown Minneapolis for a march into the streets. I would be pepper sprayed after demonstrators stopped to confront city police officers. 

The looting “hurt me … because all of those people are young people misguided. They don’t have anywhere to direct their frustration and energy that’s justified,” a local teacher told me.

The third precinct would be lit on fire as I was in my hotel, recovering from  a healthy dose of pepper spray.

May 29 

I was told to start working that evening  so I could save my energy for late-afternoon and nighttime demonstrations. The adjustment proved prescient; I would need the energy to safely escape arson and chemical irritants on the southside. 

After following several groups, including one led by a former NBA player, I latched on to a post-curfew protest – a three-mile march up an interstate to the Uptown district. I stuck with the peaceful marchers who were critical of the Minneapolis mayor and DA while saving some kind words for good Minneapolis police officers. ““They let us do what we need to do.” 

I left the marchers to see how wild the arson and looting in the area would get. Before midnight, state troopers and Minneapolis police stormed the streets near the Fifth Precinct to clear crowds. I arranged for a ride so I wouldn’t be pepper sprayed or arrested among a truly unruly crowd. 

May 30 

We didn’t know what to expect Friday. All eyes were on Minnesota and rhetoric from the White House put pressure on local leaders to keep protest peaceful. On the streets of Minneapolis, recovery was well underway as neighborhoods hit hardest by arson and looters saw influxes of volunteer help. Speeches and marches continued to fill the city. I told the photographer I was with that the night may be quieter than the two previous. That may have been true for Minneapolis, but not for the rest of the country. 

Demonstrators ignored another curfew, peacefully gathering at popular protest  spots until being moved by law enforcement. For three hours, I tracked groups of people who’d set up a barricade just to have it knocked down by police officers, trying to get people to go home. 

May 31

My final night in the city was May 31. I was exhausted by the marching and the stories of violence. I was impressed by the will of people risking their freedom for  something they believed in. I worried for the city where I had spent a year of elementary school; it would never look or feel the same. I knew big change was on the horizon. How would that affect the Twin Cities’ most vulnerable populations?  

We’re not going home:

Tyler Davis is a reporter for the Des Moines Register, part of the USA Today network. You can follow him on Twitter at @TDavisDMR or email him at tjdavis@gannett.com.

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